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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Pope’s Easter speech renews calls for peace in Gaza, Ukraine

ROME — Speaking to tens of thousands of followers in St. Peter’s Square, and millions more across the globe, Pope Francis gave a solemn accounting of a world in crisis Sunday, using the pulpit of his Easter address to renew calls for a cease-fire in Gaza while drawing attention to other conflicts, from Ukraine to Haiti, heightened risks of famine, the threat of climate change and the plight of migrants.

The pope’s Easter address, known as an Urbi et Orbi — or a speech “to the city [of Rome] and the world” — doesn’t often make news but is, along with the speech delivered at Christmas, one of the most important on the papal calendar. His words served to crystallize the ills plaguing a fragile, violent world and found the pontiff of 1.3 billion Catholics fulfilling a role he frequently assumes: humanity’s conscience and moral compass.

Surrounded by the splendor of the Vatican and 35,000 blooms supplied by Dutch florists, Francis appeared steady if occasionally labored while speaking, after skipping or reducing his participation in several events during Holy Week leading up to Easter. The week is considered among the most physically taxing for the 87-year-old and came this year as concerns have mounted about his health.

Following an Easter service marked by pageantry and tradition and celebrated with the aid of a cardinal, however, Francis appeared animated, even jocular, as he shook hands with senior clerics from his wheelchair. He later took to his popemobile to wave at ecstatic worshipers, some of whom yelled out: “Long Live the Pope!”

In his subsequent speech from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica — where, on a blustery day, his white mantilla lifted up behind him at times — Francis delved into the two conflicts about which his comments have stirred the most controversy: Ukraine and Gaza.

He said his thoughts went out to “Israel and Palestine” and appealed once more for a cease-fire and guarantees for humanitarian aid into Gaza. On Sunday, without mentioning Hamas by name, he called for the Israeli hostages kidnapped by the group on Oct. 7 to be released. He also drew attention to the plight of Lebanon, home to a large Christian population.

Francis has previously drawn the ire of Israel for comments suggesting that its assault on the Gaza Strip is tantamount to “terrorism.”

“Let us not allow the current hostilities to continue to have grave repercussions on the civil population, by now at the limit of its endurance, and above all on the children,” Francis said Sunday. “How much suffering we see in the eyes of the children: the children in those lands at war have forgotten how to smile! With those eyes, they ask us: Why? Why all this death? Why all this destruction?”

In Ukraine, the pope has drawn sharp criticism for his suggestion that Russia was provoked into action by NATO. This month, in an interview with Swiss public broadcaster RSI, he picked up on a word used by his interviewer to suggest there was strength in raising a “white flag” by those who are “defeated.”

On Sunday, the pope called for a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine and for an end to hostilities.

He spun a picture of a world in crisis, expressing grief for the violence in Haiti, the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar and strife in Africa. He warned of returning ethnic tensions in the Western Balkans. “May ethnic, cultural and confessional differences not be a cause of division, but rather a source of enrichment for all of Europe and for the world as a whole,” he said.

The pope’s mobility is restricted by knee pain, and he underwent intestinal surgery last year. But in recent months, the Vatican has said his primary issue has been respiratory. He repeatedly skipped events and handed speeches over to aides amid lingering bouts with bronchitis and influenza. Last month, as he fought a flu, he made an unannounced visit to a Rome hospital for diagnostic tests.

On Palm Sunday — a week before Easter — millions around the globe watched as Francis, at the last minute, decided to forgo delivery of his homily.

At Wednesday’s regular papal audience, he appeared in good spirits and relatively strong, walking with only the aid of a cane onto the stage at the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall.

Two days later, however, he refrained from an act of humility he has preformed in the past: prostrating himself on the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica during Good Friday’s Passion of the Lord Service. And he skipped a reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus at Rome’s Colosseum. The Vatican said the move was to preserve his strength ahead of a busy week of Easter engagements. On Saturday night, he presided over an Easter Vigil at St. Peter’s Basilica, pushed inside in his wheelchair and sounding slightly strained and sometimes out of breath.

During Easter week, Francis has also sought to focus on women and renew his dedication to a cornerstone of his papacy: humility. After his ascension to the throne of St. Peter in 2013, he revolutionized the traditional washing of feet — a nod to the Christian belief that Jesus washed the feet of his 12 disciples the night before his crucifixion — by including women, refugees and Muslims. On Holy Thursday this year, he opted to visit Rome’s Rebibbia prison and, for the first time, exclusively washed the feet of women, all of them inmates, from his wheelchair.

The pope’s health struggles have fueled talk of whether he might follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, by retiring. In his recently published autobiography, however, the pope suggested that his condition would need to be extremely grave to take such a step. Referring to chatter among his critics, he wrote: “Some people may have hoped that sooner or later, perhaps after a stay in the hospital, I might make an announcement of that kind, but there is no risk of it.”

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